Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Project PROTHO's First Day Bandings

As noted yesterday, Project PROTHO has begun at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. The hunt for Prothontary Warblers (PW) (Protonotaria citrea) did not begin auspiciously. It took some walking around the 1.75-mile boardwalk before we found a singing male. However, after setting up the mist net (see first image), we were unable to lure the bird closer to the net even though we were playing a "rival" male's song through speakers under the net. In the second image, a foam ball thrown into the mist net shows how the net gives without hurting a bird before the bird drops into the net's pouch and becomes tangled.

After failing to capture our first target, we moved along the boardwalk and watched a Barred Owl (Strix varia) hunting crayfish. Perched above the water, the owl can see through the water to the crayfish moving across the bottom. The owl missed its prey during the only attempt we observed, but quickly took up watch on a nearby limb.

Just beyond the sign for the 1000-year-old cyress tree, we heard another male PW signing quietly. Watching us set up the mist net was a Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) basking on a fallen tree. Once again, the PW was not interested in the male calling from the iPod and we eventually packed up for the move down the boardwalk.

Finally, the setup on the way out to Goodson Lake captured a male Prothonotary Warbler...the first of 2009! Two PWs were banded before the birds migrated south last year. After removing the bird from the net, the aluminum identification number band plus the three color bands were placed on the the bird's legs. The aluminum band is issued by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Bird Banding Laboratory as part of the North American Bird Banding Program. The USGS is notified whenever a band is found or read from a captured bird. Any information associated with that recovery is shared with the original banders. Therefore, we may learn where Beidler Forest birds go on migration or what birds use Beidler Forest as a stopover during their migration. The colors each are assigned a number and are read from the lower left around to the lower right, so the first bird is A024 (A=aluminum; 0=purple/white; 2=pink; 4=yellow). The color bands are strictly for identifying PWs along the boardwalk at Beidler Forest without needing to recapture the individual birds. After having its wing measured, its feathers examined, its mass measured and its picutre taken, the bird was released. The male flew to a nearby branch and immediately began examining his new leg accessories!

Later captures were made near the first rain shelter at #9. Two male PWs, one female PW (not as brightly yellow as males), and a Northern Parula (Parula americana) were measured and banded. Only the PWs received the extra colored bands. While using the rain shelter as our banding station, we noticed two Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus piscivorus) snakes sunning themselves nearby.

Our final capture happened near #7 along the boardwalk. Two male PWs were harassing each other. After numerous passes under the mist net by both birds, one bird finally caught itself in the net. While we were banding the bird, the other male PW kept watch on a branch directly overhead...it even sang. As soon as we released the banded PW, the unbanded PW attacked and drove the banded PW into the water. Both birds then began a stare-off from perches within five feet of each other.

We would have enjoyed the opportunity to continue our observations, but the day was quickly coming to a close and the equipment needed to be put away before we headed home. Fortunately, like the 1000+-year-old cypress trees, the PWs will be here when we return. It is going to be an exciting season for Prothonotary Warbler-related activities!

Images by Mark Musselman

Monday, March 30, 2009

Project PROTHO Has Begun!

We spent all day along the 1.75-mile boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest for the first day of Project PROTHO! We were able to capture and band five Prothonotary Warblers (4 male, 1 female) and a Northern Parula Warbler (a.k.a. "Project PROTHO by-catch").

Details and images, including the other wildlife observed during the day, will be posted tomorrow.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Jeff's Book is Here!

Jeff Mollenhauer's book Birding South Carolina: A Guide to 40 Premier Birding Sites is here! If you are interested in when or where to look for particular birds in SC, this is the definitive guide! The cost is $21.95 per copy, you can get a signed here in the Beidler Forest gift shop, with the profits going to support the work of Audubon South Carolina.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Watershed Event

How many rivers are associated with the Four Holes Swamp watershed, which contains the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest? Can't think of one? Then you are a winner! The Santee River flows north of Four Holes Swamp and is dammed to form Lake Marion. The Edisto River flows south of the Four Holes Swamp watershed and receives all the water that exits the watershed. The water in Four Holes Swamp is nearly 100% rain that has fallen at some point within the watershed boundaries.

Yesterday, we participated in the Charleston Air Force Base's Earth Day celebration. We brought bottom samples taken from the swamp near #5 along the old-growth swamp boardwalk. Many only see leaf litter on the bottom when they look through the slightly-tinted water of the swamp. However, the bottom is teeming with animal life. Some of those animals are eating the settled organic material that was not swept away by the swamp's flowing water. Other animals, like the predatory dragonfly nymphs (see image), are eating other animals. No matter what they are eating, some of the animals cannot tolerated pollution in the water, while others can basically live in sewage. By examining the percentage of pollution-intolerant species to the total number of animal species collected in the sample, we can tell qualitatively whether the water is high-quality or low quality.

Twelve fifth grade classes (300 students) from local Charleston County schools cycled through the Francis Beidler Forest tent and picked through sample trays. They used a dichotomous key to identify dragonfly nymphs, crayfish, snails, mussels, mayfly nymphs, scuds, and various worms and smaller organisms. It is always a high-interest activity and the quarterly samples we take continue to show that the water in Four Holes Swamp is of the highest quality!

Today, the Master Naturalists from Spring Island (near Beaufort) visited to study the cypress-tupelo swamp habitats and the associated limestone bluff habitats. Although the day did not warm terribly, we did see two Banded Water Snakes, two Eastern Cottonmouths, the alligator, a Common Snapping Turtle in search of a mate, a River Frog, a Green Treefrog, a Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron, numerous Northern Parula Warblers, a Belted Kingfisher, and a Barred Owl catching and eating crayfish. We talked about the impending start of Project PROTHO, but did not detect any Prothonotary Warblers along the boardwalk.

Along the bluff, we discovered a Southern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus auriculatus) and a Three-lined Salamander (Eurycea guttolineata) within the seeps coming from the bluff. We also saw Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), May-apple (Podophyllum peltatum), and Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) blooming.

Another great day in the old-growth swamp!

Images by Mac Stone

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What Does a Snapping Turtle Fear?

At the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) does not fear much once it grows beyond a hatchling! One look at the body armor and the sharp, powerful jaws and there is little reason to wonder why! However, gators are always a cause for concern, especially in the SEC and if they're wearing hip boots!

We were in the swamp collecting macroinvertebrate samples for tomorrow's Charleston Air Force Base Earth Day program, when we noticed a pair of mating snapping turtles. Mac Stone, one of our seasonal naturalist and a Florida Gator, investigated as the pair of turtles moved down the creek channel closer to our location. Kids! Do NOT attempt to pick up a snapping turtle. Even when being held by the tail, a snapping turtle can stretch its neck and bite you or a bystander. The turtle's jaws are powerful enough to remove a finger. In fact, snapping turtles kill other turtles by decapitation!

The male turtle that Mac is holding does not appear to be happy that he was interrupted. Mating can occur between now and November though egg fertilization may not occur after the somewhat-violent coupling. The female may store sperm for several years, which allows her to lay eggs in following years without having to find a mate. This is possibly another reason the male turtle was unhappy with Mac's curiosity. If the eggs are fertilized, the female will find a rotten log or sandy soil on higher ground and dig a nest hole with her large back legs. She will deposit up to 85 eggs, cover the hole, and return to the water without spending any more time with the eggs or hatchlings. Many of the nests will be predated, especially by the raccoons that find the nests with their acute sense of smell.

Snapping turtles hunting mates...just another sign that spring has arrived.

Image by Mark Musselman

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Business of Birding

The New York Times recently ran an article describing birders' propensity to mix their passion with business travel. The article states:

In fact, business travel, reviled by many forced to endure it, is frequently a boon for the nation’s 20 million birders, and their employers as well.

To begin with, bird watchers are often more eager to hit the road than their nonbirding colleagues. Cyndi Lubecke, a birder from Prospect Heights, Ill., said she had to travel 46 weeks one year for her work as a leadership training consultant. “I looked at it as an opportunity to see a lot of birds.” Some of her nonbirding co-workers, by contrast, balked.

Travel to out-of-the-way places that many nonbirders find unappealing can be especially attractive to those who pack binoculars and field guides in their carry-on luggage.

From the US Fish & Wildlife Service report entitled Wildlife Watching in the U.S.: The Economic Impacts on National and State Economies in 2006Addendum to the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.

Wildlife watching is one of the most popular types of outdoor recreation in the United States. Nearly a third of the U.S. population, 71 million people, enjoyed closely observing, feeding, and photographing wildlife in 2006. Wildlife watching around the home and on trips is an important and growing form of recreation. Eight percent more people participated in 2006 than in 2001.

In addition to contributing significantly to people’s enjoyment of the outdoors, wildlife watching has a substantial impact on the nation’s and states’ economies. The $45.7 billion spent on wildlife equipment and trips in 2006 contributed substantially to federal and state tax revenues, jobs, earnings, and economic output.

Of course, this is not news to Audubon South Carolina! Spectacular birding opportunities are available in the habitats at both centers in South Carolina (Francis Beidler Forest and Silver Bluff), in addition to programs such as Wine & Warblers (Apr), Swallow-tailed Kite Survey (Apr), bird summer camp at Beidler Forest, Storks & Corks (Aug), bird walks, Christmas Bird Count (Dec), and the Great Backyard Bird Count (Feb)!

Come join the bird nerds!

Image by Mark Musselman

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Catching Up

It has been a busy few days at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest! Three days of school visits from Sangaree Intermediate School, Project PROTHO equipment checks, a combination boardwalk/canoe trail tour for Danish exchange students and fruitless attempts to capture an image of the Yellow-throated Warbler (Dendroica dominica) collecting caterpillar cocoon silk from the eaves outside our office windows.

The swamp is becoming more active with each passing day! The forest is becoming greener and the following plants are already producing flowers: Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), Atamasco Lily (Zephyranthes atamasco), Butterweed (Senecio glabellus), Squaw-root (Conopholis americana), Carolina Jessamine (Gelsenium sempervirens), Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadenis), Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) and Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida). Male Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are conspicuously in pursuit of females; birds of every species are singing to announce their territory and attract a mate; and birds, like the camera-shy Yellow-throated Warbler, are busy gathering nesting materials. Unfortunately, the reduced staffing on weekends forces us to remain in the building and experience the swamp vicariously through the excited stories told by our visitors as they exit the boardwalk.

Today's reports include a Barred Owl (Strix varia) fishing for crayfish in the shallow water, a large number of Eastern Mud Turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum subrubrum) as shown in the image, White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and numerous species of singing birds. The Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), however, has yet to return. We also received an excited report from the Summerville field office.

Upon returning home from a soccer game, the Musselman family spied a large hawk in the driveway hooding its prey. They quietly exited the vehicle, moved wide around the far side of the yard and entered the house on the side opposite of the hawk. From a window in the room above the garage they attempted to get an image, but the hawk's keen eyesight alerted it to their presence and it flew to a nearby branch. At that point, the hooded prey was identified as an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). No need to worry, the habitat has an abundant population of squirrels! The hawk did return for its meal. Best-case senario...that squirrel was converted into young hawk!

Today, was a day to try and catch up. However, like the swamp, the visitor population has become more active and has garnered the majority of our attention! Not a bad thing.

Image by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bald Mist Lilies

What is a Bald Mist Lily? It is a three-fer blog topic. Today, activities at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest included spotting a pair of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), testing the boardwalk-mist-net adapters, and admiring the first Atamasco Lily (Zephyranthes atamasco) of the year.

While leading 5th graders from Sangaree Intermediate School around the boardwalk, we saw a pair of Bald Eagles fly overhead! The black and white plumage was unmistakable against the blue sky. One of the eagles was flying aggressively after the other eagle. Bald Eagles prefer habitat that is more open than the swamp, so we normally do not see this species from the boardwalk, especially once the canopy has filled with leaves.

From the Audubon of Florida webpage: In Florida, due to loss of available habitat for nesting and concentrations of birds in certain areas, intraspecies fighting with aggressive aerial territory battles can occur among eagles throughout the nesting season. Typically, talon wounds are inflicted on the legs, lower abdomen, chest and head areas, and in severe disputes, mortality occurs. Immature eaglets lacking the white head and tail coloration, are in non-threatening plumage, and generally will not be attacked by nesting birds, just escorted out of the territory range.

The birds involved in today's flyby had white plumage and appeared to be engaged in hostilities. If one male was indeed chasing another male from his territory, then a nearby cypress or pine may hold a nest within its crown. We'll need to keep our eyes skyward before spring leaves obscure the upper canopy.

Thinking of smaller birds, we are continuing our preparations for the Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) banding of Project PROTHO. Collis, the resident handyman, constructed mist net holders that can be clamped to the handrail of the boardwalk (see images). This mist net adaptation will allow us to set up the net anywhere along the 1.75-mile boardwalk, especially near any identified nesting sites. The elapsed time for the first setup was just under 10 minutes. With just over a week to go before the Prothonotary Warblers are expected to return, we can now confidently say, "Bring it!"

Finally, on the way back to the nature center, we spied the first Atamasco Lily of the season. The plant also goes by the common names "Easter Lily" and "Naked Lady." The first common name refers to the bloom's appearance near Easter on the calendar and the second common name refers to the lack of leaves on the flower's stalk.

Images by Mark Musselman

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick's Day in the Swamp

The 5th graders from Sangaree Intermediate School hope that St. Patrick didn't drive all of the snakes out of the Francis Beidler Forest in Four Holes Swamp! The rain over the last few days and the cooler weather this morning keep most of the reptiles in hiding, but the students searched diligently.

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, the swamp is wearing green! The warmer weather and longer days have various plants pushing out green leaves and the only non-bird animals we saw were moss-covered (green) Yellow-bellied Sliders (Trachemys scripta scripta), a Greenish Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta x quadrivittata) and a Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea) like the one in the image. The swamp was definitely in the spirit of the holiday!

Image by Mark Musselman

Monday, March 16, 2009

My Yard eBird

We've all noticed the birds in our yards at some time or another. Some of us may have gone a step farther and actually written down the species and the date they was sighted. Others of us may have detailed files on all the bird activity within the property lines of our homestead. In most cases, it is probably difficult to access and interpret the data. However, now there is a webpage that can help you keep track of the birds that you see on your property and make it easier to compare data across the years.

From the My Yard eBird webpage:

It's now easier than ever to keep track of the birds in your yard. Just go to the Submit Observations tab above, mark your home on a map, and enter the number of each bird you see there. It's as easy as pie!
You can enter the list of birds you see in your yard each day, and even enter past bird sightings you may have written down somewhere in a notebook. My Yard eBird will keep track of all these sightings for you, and back them up so they never get lost.

You can have My Yard eBird show you the cummulative list of all the birds you've seen in your yard, as well as every time you've seen a particular bird. Your bird sightings will also go into the larger eBird database to help us better understand where birds are and how their populations are doing across the country and around the world.

You already enjoy the birds in your yard. Now you can enjoy keeping track of them, and feel good knowing that you are helping us better understand and take care of the birds we enjoy!

Please join Audubon South Carolina by recording the birds in your portion of our planet!

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Prothonotary Warblers Are Coming!

The Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) will be at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest by the end of the month and Project PROTHO will officially get underway! We will begin banding the birds immediately, so visitors should be able to spot color-banded birds from the boardwalk in April.

Image by Mark Musselman

Anyone can participate by observing a color-banded Prothonotary Warbler, recording on a data sheet the sighting and the bird's location, and then turning the data sheet in at the nature center. We will load the Prothonotary Warbler information into the nature center touchscreen computer AND on the Audubon South Carolina webpage. Each bird will have its own webpage, so participants can keep track of the birds they spotted in the swamp. We will upload all sightings, the identity of mates, offspring that are banded, nest locations, and any foreign travel should the birds be captured beyond our borders.

The flyer below provides additonal information. Please share this flyer and join us in the swamp for Project PROTHO!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Green Treefrogs

Maybe it is the warm weather so soon after cold nights, but there have been numerous Green Treefrog (Hyla cinerea) sightings around the boardwalk at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.

These images are but a sample of the individual frogs spotted in the last two days. The bright green frogs are not often seen on green-colored objects. This seems counter to teachings contained in the Camouflage in Nature 101 textbook that is required reading for all animals not toxic enough to deter predators. We have not found any literature describing toxicity of Green Treefrogs, but maybe they don't taste good and can afford to be a highly-visible green spot on a gray branch. The main threat to the Green Treefrog appears to be the non-native Cuban Treefrog, which not only competes for resources, but actually preys on other frogs like the Green Treefrog.

Images by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

We Have A Crazy Bird At Our Window!

"Hi, we have a crazy bird at our window. Is there anything you can do?" Staff members at the Audubon Centers at both the Francis Beidler Forest and at Silver Bluff have had to field that question every spring. The birds not suffering mental instability due to disease or an exotic, brain-eating parasite, but they are crazy...crazy serious! This is mating season! Crest up!

So serious are many male birds about passing along their DNA to the next generation, that they will wear themselves out defending their nesting territory and the mate to which they have paired. Any other male of the species is a threat as he could couple with the female of the territory resulting in offspring that are not of the residing male. Reflections in windows or mirrors are perceived as male threats...and what a threat! They are MAGNIFICENT! If the male defending the territory could verbalize its feelings, it might think aloud, "This guy looks as good as me. This is going to be tough! I've got to give it my all!" As the sun's location in the sky changed through the day, the male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) in the images move to more reflective windows and finally settled down.

The male Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina) carried on in a similar fashion last year, but we eventually learned what else was bothering that individual. The bird's nest was right outside of our office window, so any reflection was a close and immediate threat.

Spring is rapidly approaching and the swamp will only get crazier!

Images by Mark Musselman